Colonel Starbottle’s Client

In a Pioneer Restaurant

Chapter I

Bret Harte

THERE WAS probably no earthly reason why the “Poco Mas o Menos” Club of San Francisco should have ever existed, or why its five harmless, indistinctive members should not have met and dined together as ordinary individuals. Still less was there any justification for the gratuitous opinion which obtained, that it was bold, bad, and brilliant. Looking back upon it over a quarter of a century and half a globe, I confess I cannot recall a single witticism, audacity, or humorous characteristic that belonged to it. Yet there was no doubt that we were thought to be extremely critical and satirical, and I am inclined to think we honestly believed it. To take our seats on Wednesdays and Saturdays at a specially reserved table at the restaurant we patronized, to be conscious of being observed by the other guests, and of our waiter confidentially imparting our fame to strangers behind the shaken-out folds of a napkin, and of knowing that the faintest indication of merriment from our table thrilled the other guests with anticipatory smiles, was, I am firmly convinced, all that we ever did to justify our reputations. Nor, strictly speaking, were we remarkable as individuals; an assistant editor, a lawyer, a young army quartermaster, a bank clerk and a mining secretary—we could not separately challenge any special social or literary distinction. Yet I am satisfied that the very name of our Club—a common Spanish colloquialism, literally meaning “a little more or less,” and adopted in Californian slang to express an unknown quantity—was supposed to be replete with deep and convulsing humor.

My impression is that our extravagant reputation, and, indeed, our continued existence as a Club, was due solely to the proprietor of the restaurant and two of his waiters, and that we were actually “run” by them. When the suggestion of our meeting regularly there was first broached to the proprietor—a German of slow but deep emotions—he received it with a “So” of such impressive satisfaction that it might have been the beginning of our vainglory. From that moment he became at once our patron and our devoted slave. To linger near our table once or twice during dinner with an air of respectful vacuity,—as of one who knew himself too well to be guilty of the presumption of attempting to understand our brilliancy,—to wear a certain parental pride and unconsciousness in our fame, and yet to never go further in seeming to comprehend it than to obligingly translate the name of the Club as “a leedle more and nod quide so much”—was to him sufficient happiness. That he ever experienced any business profit from the custom of the Club, or its advertisement, may be greatly doubted; on the contrary, that a few plain customers, nettled at our self-satisfaction, might have resented his favoritism seemed more probable. Equally vague, disinterested, and loyal was the attachment of the two waiters,—one an Italian, faintly reminiscent of better days and possibly superior extraction; the other a rough but kindly Western man, who might have taken this menial position from temporary stress of circumstances, yet who continued in it from sheer dominance of habit and some feebleness of will. They both vied with each other to please us. It may have been they considered their attendance upon a reputed intellectual company less degrading than ministering to the purely animal and silent wants of the average customers. It may have been that they were attracted by our general youthfulness. Indeed, I am inclined to think that they themselves were much more distinctive and interesting than any members of the Club, and it is to introduce them that I venture to recall so much of its history.

A few months after our advent at the restaurant, one evening, Joe Tallant, the mining secretary, one of our liveliest members, was observed to be awkward and distrait during dinner, forgetting even to offer the usual gratuity to the Italian waiter who handed him his hat, although he stared at him with an imbecile smile. As we chanced to leave the restaurant together, I was rallying him upon his abstraction, when to my surprise he said gravely: “Look here, one of two things has got to happen: either we must change our restaurant or I’m going to resign.”


“Well, to make matters clear, I’m obliged to tell you something that in our business we usually keep a secret. About three weeks ago I had a notice to transfer twenty feet of Gold Hill to a fellow named ‘Tournelli.’ Well, Tournelli happened to call for it himself, and who the devil do you suppose Tournelli was? Why our Italian waiter. I was regularly startled, and so was he. But business is business; so I passed him over the stock and said nothing—nor did he—neither there nor here. Day before yesterday he had thirty feet more transferred to him, and sold out.”

“Well?” I said impatiently.

“Well,” repeated Tallant indignantly. “Gold Hill’s worth six hundred dollars a foot. That’s eighteen thousand dollars cash. And a man who’s good enough for that much money is too good to wait upon me. Fancy a man who could pay my whole year’s salary with five feet of stock slinging hash to me. Fancy you tipping him with a quarter!”

“But if he don’t mind it—and prefers to continue a waiter—why should you care? And we’re not supposed to know.”

“That’s just it,” groaned Tallant. “That’s just where the sell comes in. Think how he must chuckle over us! No, sir! There’s nothing aristocratic about me; but, by thunder, if I can’t eat my dinner, and feel I am as good as the man who waits on me, I’ll resign from the Club.”

After endeavoring to point out to him the folly of such a proceeding, I finally suggested that we should take the other members of our Club into our confidence, and abide by their decision; to which he agreed. But, to his chagrin, the others, far from participating in his delicacy, seemed to enjoy Tournelli’s unexpected wealth with a vicarious satisfaction and increase of dignity as if we were personally responsible for it. Although it had been unanimously agreed that we should make no allusions, jocose or serious, to him, nor betray any knowledge of it before him, I am afraid our attitude at the next dinner was singularly artificial. A nervous expectancy when he approached us, and a certain restraint during his presence, a disposition to check any discussion of shares or “strikes” in mining lest he should think it personal, an avoidance of unnecessary or trifling “orders,” and a singular patience in awaiting their execution when given; a vague hovering between sympathetic respect and the other extreme of indifferent bluntness in our requests, tended, I think, to make that meal far from exhilarating. Indeed, the unusual depression affected the unfortunate cause of it, who added to our confusion by increased solicitude of service and—as if fearful of some fault, or having incurred our disfavor—by a deprecatory and exaggerated humility that in our sensitive state seemed like the keenest irony. At last, evidently interpreting our constraint before him into a desire to be alone, he retired to the door of a distant pantry, whence he surveyed us with dark and sorrowful Southern eyes. Tallant, who in this general embarrassment had been imperfectly served, and had eaten nothing, here felt his grievance reach its climax, and in a sudden outbreak of recklessness he roared out, “Hi, waiter—you, Tournelli. He may,” he added, turning darkly to us, “buy up enough stock to control the board and dismiss me; but, by thunder, if it costs me my place, I’m going to have some more chicken!”

It was probably this sensitiveness that kept us from questioning him, even indirectly, and perhaps led us into the wildest surmises. He was acting secretly for a brotherhood or society of waiters; he was a silent partner of his German employer; he was a disguised Italian stockbroker, gaining “points” from the unguarded conversation of “operating” customers; he was a political refugee with capital; he was a fugitive Sicilian bandit, investing his ill-gotten gains in California; he was a dissipated young nobleman, following some amorous intrigue across the ocean, and acting as his own Figaro or Leporello. I think a majority of us favored the latter hypothesis, possibly because we were young, and his appearance gave it color. His thin black mustaches and dark eyes, we felt, were Tuscan and aristocratic; at least, they were like the baritone who played those parts, and he ought to know. Yet nothing could be more exemplary and fastidious than his conduct towards the few lady frequenters of the “Poodle Dog” restaurant, who, I regret to say, were not puritanically reserved or conventual in manner.

But an unexpected circumstance presently changed and divided our interest. It was alleged by Clay, the assistant editor, that entering the restaurant one evening he saw the back and tails of a coat that seemed familiar to him half-filling a doorway leading to the restaurant kitchen. It was unmistakably the figure of one of our Club members,—the young lawyer,—Jack Manners. But what was he doing there? While the Editor was still gazing after him, he suddenly disappeared, as if some one had warned him that he was observed. As he did not reappear, when Tournelli entered from the kitchen a few moments later, the Editor called him and asked for his fellow-member. To his surprise the Italian answered, with every appearance of truthfulness, that he had not seen Mr. Manners at all! The Editor was staggered; but as he chanced, some hours later, to meet Manners, he playfully rallied him on his mysterious conference with the Italian. Manners replied briefly that he had had no interview whatever with Tournelli, and changed the subject quickly. The mystery—as we persisted in believing it—was heightened when another member deposed that he had seen “Tom,” the Western waiter, coming from Manners’s office. As Manners had volunteered no information of this, we felt that we could not without indelicacy ask him if Tom was a client, or a messenger from Tournelli. The only result was that our Club dinner was even more constrained than before. Not only was “Tom” now invested with a dark importance, but it was evident that the harmony of the Club was destroyed by these singular secret relations of two of its members with their employes.

It chanced that one morning, arriving from a delayed journey, I dropped into the restaurant. It was that slack hour between the lingering breakfast and coming luncheon when the tables are partly stripped and unknown doors, opened for ventilation, reveal the distant kitchen, and a mingled flavor of cold coffee-grounds and lukewarm soups hangs heavy on the air. To this cheerlessness was added a gusty rain without, that filmed the panes of the windows and doors, and veiled from the passer-by the usual tempting display of snowy cloths and china.

As I seemed to be the only customer at that hour, I selected a table by the window for distraction. Tom had taken my order; the other waiters, including Tournelli, were absent, with the exception of a solitary German, who, in the interlude of perfunctory trifling with the casters, gazed at me with that abstracted irresponsibility which one waiter assumes towards another’s customer. Even the proprietor had deserted his desk at the counter. It seemed to be a favorable opportunity to get some information from Tom.

But he anticipated me. When he had dealt a certain number of dishes around me, as if they were cards and he was telling my fortune, he leaned over the table and said, with interrogating confidence:—

“I reckon you call that Mr. Manners of yours a good lawyer?”

We were very loyal to each other in the Club, and I replied with youthful enthusiasm that he was considered one of the most promising at the bar. And, remembering Tournelli, I added confidently that whoever engaged him to look after their property interests had secured a treasure.

“But is he good in criminal cases—before a police court, for instance?” continued Tom.

I believed—I don’t know on what grounds—that Manners was good in insurance and admiralty law, and that he looked upon criminal practice as low; but I answered briskly—though a trifle startled—that as a criminal lawyer he was perfect.

“He could advise a man, who had a row hanging on, how to steer clear of being up for murder—eh?”

I trusted, with a desperate attempt at jocosity, that neither he nor Tournelli had been doing anything to require Manners’s services in that way.

“It would be too late, then,” said Tom, coolly, “and anybody could tell a man what he ought to have done, or how to make the best of what he had done; but the smart thing in a lawyer would be to give a chap points beforehand, and sorter tell him how far he could go, and yet keep inside the law. How he might goad a fellow to draw on him, and then plug him—eh?”

I looked up quickly. There was nothing in his ordinary, good-humored, but not very strong face to suggest that he himself was the subject of this hypothetical case. If he were speaking for Tournelli, the Italian certainly was not to be congratulated on his ambassador’s prudence; and, above all, Manners was to be warned of the interpretation which might be put upon his counsels, and disseminated thus publicly. As I was thinking what to say, he moved away, but suddenly returned again.

“What made you think Tournelli had been up to anything?” he asked sharply.

“Nothing,” I answered; “I only thought you and he, being friends”—

“You mean we’re both waiters in the same restaurant. Well, I don’t know him any better than I know that chap over there,” pointing to the other waiter. “He’s a Greaser or an Italian, and, I reckon, goes with his kind.”

Why had we not thought of this before? Nothing would be more natural than that the rich and imperious Tournelli should be exclusive, and have no confidences with his enforced associates. And it was evident that Tom had noticed it and was jealous.

“I suppose he’s rather a swell, isn’t he?” I suggested tentatively.

A faint smile passed over Tom’s face. It was partly cynical and partly suggestive of that amused toleration of our youthful credulity which seemed to be a part of that discomposing patronage that everybody extended to the Club. As he said nothing, I continued encouragingly:—

“Because a man’s a waiter, it doesn’t follow that he’s always been one, or always will be.”

“No,” said Tom, abstractedly; “but it’s about as good as anything else to lie low and wait on.” But here two customers entered, and he turned to them, leaving me in doubt whether to accept this as a verbal pleasantry or an admission. Only one thing seemed plain: I had certainly gained no information, and only added a darker mystery to his conference with Manners, which I determined I should ask Manners to explain.

I finished my meal in solitude. The rain was still beating drearily against the windows with an occasional accession of impulse that seemed like human impatience. Vague figures under dripping umbrellas, that hid their faces as if in premeditated disguise, hurried from the main thoroughfare. A woman in a hooded waterproof like a domino, a Mexican in a black serape, might have been stage conspirators hastening to a rendezvous. The cavernous chill and odor which I had before noted as coming from some sarcophagus of larder or oven, where “funeral baked meats” might have been kept in stock, began to oppress me. The hollow and fictitious domesticity of this common board had never before seemed so hopelessly displayed. And Tom, the waiter, his napkin twisted in his hand and his face turned with a sudden dark abstraction towards the window, appeared to be really “lying low,” and waiting for something outside his avocation.

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